Maiden Lane, London WC2
A robust design of the 1870s in Early English Gothic style, Frederick Hyde Pownall’s last, which cleverly overcomes site constraints. The church was built ‘as an act of reparation for the indignities offered to the Blessed Sacrament in this country in the sixteenth century and since’. The dark and atmospheric interior contains some important furnishings, notably by Thomas Earp. With its pyramidal spire and attached contemporary presbytery, the church makes a positive contribution to the Covent Garden Conservation Area. The church is the Westminster Diocesan Shrine of the Blessed Sacrament and the base of the Catholic Stage Guild.
In 1872 a lease on a small L-shaped parcel of land was acquired from the Bedford Estate by Fr Cornelius Keens for the purposes of building a church. The mission territory was the area around Covent Garden, the Strand, Whitehall and Trafalgar Square, which was said to contain about 2,000 Catholics, many of them working in the local markets. Designs were drawn up by the Catholic convert architect Frederick Hyde Pownall, whom Fr Keens had employed at Sacred Heart, Holloway (qv). The contractors were Messrs Sharpington & Cole of Westminster Bridge Road. The foundation stone for a church estimated to cost £8,000 was laid on 5 August 1873. The church was built in the Early English Gothic style, and its internal floor level was sunk three feet below that of the pavement, in order, it is said, to assuage local concern about the scale of the building. The church of Corpus Christi was opened on 20 October 1874, when Archbishop Manning preached. The Tablet report stated that the dedication was intended ‘as an act of reparation for the indignities offered to the Blessed Sacrament in this country in the sixteenth century and since’. It is believed to have been the first church to be built in England since the Reformation with this dedication. The Tablet report also referred to the difficulties faced by the architect on account of the poor foundations and confined nature of the site.
The church was consecrated in October 1956, the debt having finally been paid off.
In 2018 the church was elevated to the status of Westminster Diocesan Shrine by Cardinal Vincent Nichols. Around this time a sumptuous scheme of reordering and redecoration took place under the direction of architect Anthony Delarue. The church has had a long association with actors, and remains the base of the Catholic Stage Guild.
The church is orientated north-south, but this description follows conventional liturgical orientation.
The exterior is adequately described in the list entry, below, but there is very little on the internal furnishings – reference is made only to the Thomas Earp altar and reredos and to the allegedly medieval font. The latter is said to have been found on the site (Catholic Weekly, 17 January 1902, 2). It is Early English in style, with an octagonal pedestal and bowl. Each side of the bowl is carved in low relief with religious motifs set in quatrefoils surround in low relief. It is located at the main entrance and is used as a holy water stoup. The painted Caen stone font used for baptisms was designed by Pownall.
As stated in the list entry, the internal walls were originally faced in bare red brick with some dark brick banding brick and stone detailing in the arches and windows (‘a nice change from monotonous plaster walls’ (Rottman, 138)). These were later covered with textured paint, happily removed in the recent restoration. Overpainting on the stone pulpit was also removed.
Other furnishings of note:
Entry amended and new photos added by AHP 23.04.2023
Church with presbytery. 1873-74 by Frederick Hyde Pownall. Stock brick with stone dressings, slate roofs. Early English style. Rectangular plan with ritual west narthex at north end to street where it is surmounted by a massive square tower, its upper stage with clasping buttresses and corbel table, 3 tall lights stone dressed with gabled arches on colonettes; short pyramidal slate spire with small lucarnes. The church entrance, a moulded and chamfered pointed arch opening to a vaulted passage, is set in the ground floor of the adjoining presbytery to left. This has a 4 storey, 4 window wide front of plain design. Flat stone heads to narrow sash windows beneath relieving arches. 3rd floor windows as stone gabled half dormers.
Church interior has 4 bay nave beyond narthex, with aisles and 2 bay sanctuary with flanking chapels. Lancet lights and plate tracery. Open arched collar braced king post timber roof. Brick walls and stone dressings have been painted. Elaborate reredos and altar of Caen stone by Earp. Medieval octagonal stone font, Early English in style.
Survey of London; Vol. XXXVI.
Listing NGR: TQ3038180771
Architect: Frederick Hyde Pownall
Original Date: 1873
Conservation Area: Yes
Listed Grade: Grade II